The journalist wanted to help a woman find her son; for the Dench, Coogan starrer, Hollywood wanted a character arc
Journalist, author, historian, BBC foreign correspondent and British government adviser Sixsmith was at a low point in his career when he met Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for the son who had been stolen from her 50 years before, when she was sent to a convent as a pregnant teenager. Their quest became a book, then a film: “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, which debuts Nov. 22 via the Weinstein Co. Coogan wrote the script and plays Sixsmith in a portrait that is often unflattering. Variety asked Sixsmith for his reaction to seeing himself portrayed on the screen.
Having your life spread-eagled on the bigscreen is not for the fainthearted. You won’t get an easy ride, and the movie would be dull if you did. But being called a “feckin’ eejit” by the world’s greatest living actor is not something I’d reckoned with.
To be fair to Dame Judi Dench — for it is she who says so — there’s a lot of provocation. Her pithy Irishism is addressed to a snooty, annoying character called “Martin Sixsmith” (played by Steve Coogan).
And it comes at a dramatic juncture in the pair’s sweet and sour banter about life and faith.
OK, you’re going to sympathize with the lovely old Irish lady that is Dame J — not with the blase intellectual that is I. But a word of mitigation! The persnickety, pedantic fellow on the screen who corrects people’s grammar and mocks the afflicted is not (necessarily) all I. When Steve Coogan snubs a waitress, wallows in self-pity or flies into fits of biblical anger, I remind myself that this is drama, and I am suffering for Art.
Martin’s worst characteristics are exaggerated at the start so he can be redeemed at the end. He rescues Philomena by looking for her lost child, but she rescues him back by teaching him humility and empathy. The “Martin” of the movie’s end isn’t such a bad fellow, but it doesn’t make the beginning any easier for me to watch. As Irish people are fond of saying when asked directions to a distant destination, “I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
(Pictured: Martin Sixsmith and Steve Coogan.)